Picturebooks for teenagers: The house that crack built
ETAS Journal, Volume 32 Number 3 (Summer 2015), pp. 33-34
What do you associate picturebooks with? Children’s literature might spring to mind. Beautifully decorated children’s books where endearing creatures leap out of every page and playfully accompany the text, building tension and enticing us to keep turning the pages. Pictorial representations have a long history in the evolution of mankind. They were an early form of communication and a means of recording events and capturing snapshots of everyday life for the people of these times and for future generations. These images told stories about society and cultural belief systems and still do. Literary texts came much later and with technological developments over the course of the centuries it has become easier to produce literature that contains both colourful images and texts, thus giving books an added appeal. But what role do these images assume? Are they included solely because of their decorative value or is there another purpose for illustrating books? Sandie Mourão’s article reveals what picturebooks are and suggests how we can use them effectively in the English language teaching classroom.
Mourão foregrounds the significance of the relationship between words and images in picturebooks, making it very clear that they are inextricably intertwined. Hence, both pictures and words enhance meaning and contribute depth to the visual narrative as well as provide a platform where multiple interpretations are possible. She reminds us that the promotion of visual literacy skills is also important as picturebooks are created so that the entire book, from cover to cover, contains deliberate design elements that contribute to the meaning-making process and as such, should not be ignored or treated as superfluous stylistic features.
I applaud Mourão for drawing our attention to picturebooks and in particular their use with older learners, in this case teenagers. Her choice of book to discuss in detail is quite courageous for The house that crack built (Taylor, 1992) crosses into territory considered contentious by some language teachers. For many teachers, drug abuse and its subsequent consequences is a taboo topic they would rather steer clear of using as teaching material. It is also a topic that ELT publishers, constrained by guidelines against the inclusion of provocative topics, do well to avoid when developing language teaching resources. In this sense, Mourão’s article is different. It encourages readers to look beyond everyday topics and to embrace picturebooks that broach challenging subjects and engage us in a way that prompts authentic responses and multiple viewpoints. It also highlights how picturebooks can be used to stimulate an emotional response from learners thus increasing their awareness of social and cultural issues while honing their language skills.
These points above and her 10-step plan, which demonstrates how picturebooks can be utilised in the classroom, are the reason why I feel Picturebooks for teenagers: The house that crack built, deserves to be included in ETAS Journal Editors’ Choice.
I hope you enjoy this informative and thought-provoking article as much as I did.
Social Media Coordinator and e-News Editor
Editorial Board, ETAS Journal
Picturebooks for teenagers: The house that crack built
What is a picturebook?
For language learning purposes, authenticity is the key in the definition of a picturebook, focussing in particular
on the words found alongside the pictures. But defining picturebooks merely as authentic materials does them
a huge injustice, as does an over emphasis on the words they contain. The definition I like most and which is
used widely in the field of children’s literature comes from Barbara Bader (1976):
A picturebook is text, illustrations, total design; an item of manufacture and a commercial product; a social,
cultural, historic document; and foremost, an experience for a child. As an art form it hinges on the
interdependence of pictures and words, on the simultaneous display of two facing pages, and on the drama
of the turning page. On its own terms, its possibilities are limitless (p. 1).
This is a definition to contend with and I shall unravel it in a moment, but first I would like to comment on
Bader’s use of the compound noun, picturebook’, reflecting the “compound nature of the artefact itself”
(Lewis, 2001, p. xiv). In fact, the word picturebook has become a legitimate neologism over the last decade,
and this is the spelling I use when referring to this very special form of children’s literature.
Unravelling the definition
1. The pictures and the words
Picturebooks are “compound” in nature because they are dependent upon pictures and words together to
create meaning: it is the “interdependence” of what the pictures show and the words tell that makes
picturebooks so special. This “interdependence” creates a picture-word dynamic ranging from a simple
showing and telling of the same information to a more complex showing and telling of different, even
contradicting information. This variation can be seen in single picturebooks, demonstrating how flexible
they are in nature.
Generally in ELT we select and use picturebooks that contain a simple picture-word relationship, with
illustrations that synchronise with the text providing a secure and supportive learning context. We focus
more on the words, often working with concept books that contain predictable and repetitive, sometimes
cumulative refrains, and pictures that please the eye but give little extra information.
More complex picture-word dynamics resulting in more sophisticated, often multilayered picturebooks are
less likely to be selected for our classrooms. However these titles are just as appropriate for they challenge
our students to infer characters’ motivations and thoughts, relate cause with effect, as well as piece puzzles
together and discover meaning. These picturebooks, which also contain a richer repertoire of vocabulary,
expand our students’ lexical knowledge as well as enhance oral comprehension. The fact that these kinds of
picturebooks provide multiple opportunities for interpretation while promoting discussion and language
use makes them very suitable for older students who will have a little more language baggage and a better
understanding of the world around them.
2. And the design?
Bader’s (1976) definition includes design alongside pictures and words. The design of a picturebook, that is,
the parts of the book considered peripheral in most literature is deliberately put to use so that a
picturebook becomes an integrated whole. Publishers bring together the skills of the author, editor,
illustrator, and designer to make use of the format, front and back covers, endpapers, title pages,
copyright, and dedication pages, so that they all articulate with the pictures and the words to produce a
unified end product.
By skipping over these parts of a picturebook in our classes, we may be omitting information contributing
to the meaning-making process we engage in while reading and sharing a picturebook, and we also take
away the opportunity to hear and use of metalanguage for talking about and discussing these parts. If we
as teachers naturally comment and model noticing as we go through these parts of a picturebook, we can
instil a curiosity in our students, which will result in discovery and enjoyment in using these features to
make meaning. Learners will naturally put the metalanguage to use and also improve their understanding
of how picturebooks work, which in turn will promote development of visual literacy and learning to look,
an often forgotten skill.
3. A social, cultural, historic document
Picturebooks cover a variety of socially, culturally, and historically appropriate material for the language
classroom dealing with a myriad of themes, and, of course, bringing the cultures of many ‘Englishes’ to our
classrooms through the words and pictures they contain. This makes them an excellent springboard for
expanding students’ understanding of a topic as well as motivating and supporting them to look beyond
their own worlds and positively experience others. There are titles that, in showing us more through the
pictures than the words, leave us gaps for personal interpretations. These kinds of picturebooks often leave
us with more questions than answers and can involve our students in a critical and questioning approach to
learning. These picturebooks cover topics such as chauvinism, bullying, equality, and disability, to mention
but a few, and it is usually through the pictures that children can access other interpretations of what we
take for granted. By using these types of picturebooks, we are providing our students with tools to begin
challenging social constructs.
Picturebooks for older learners
In published literature supporting the use of picturebooks, there are an increasing number of titles which
contain more complex picture-word dynamics, providing multilayered readings, covering more demanding
topics suitable for the upper primary age groups: Princess Smartypants (Cole, 1996) and Something Else
(Cave & Riddell, 1994) are included in Ellis & Brewster’s (2002) storytelling handbook for primary teachers,
and provide important early steps in being critical about the world, looking at gender roles and tolerance
respectively. A set of resources on the British Council Teach English website also features titles which
demand a more critical and questioning approach, such as Tusk Tusk (McGee, 2006), a puzzling book about
hatred and war and respecting differences, and Susan Laughs (Willis & Ross, 2001), about a child in a
wheelchair. In addition to these online materials, I keep a blog, which does not provide activities as such,
but focuses on different picturebook titles emphasising the pictures and what they can bring to the learning
equation. I have discussed over 100 titles, including those suitable for older children and several for
teenagers. Examples are The Red Tree (Tan, 2000), which looks at teenage emotions, and Piggybook
(Browne, 2008), which touches on male chauvinism. However, the picturebook I am going to look at in this
article can be used in relation to the topic of drugs and addiction. The link to my blog post about this book
is listed in the references.
The House that Crack Built: A Picturebook for Teenagers
The House that Crack Built (1992) is written by Clark Taylor and illustrated by Jan Thompson Dicks. The
verbal text has “a beat reminiscent of hip-hop or rap music”, and it is an adaptation of a well-known
cumulative nursery rhyme, The House that Jack Built. In the picturebook, the rhyme is transformed into “a
powerful poem about the tragic problem of illegal drugs and its victims” (Publisher’s blurb, p. 34). We are
taken from the home of the rich landowner, who grows the coca plants, to the dealers and gangs on the
streets and end with the innocent crack babies who are born everyday. The journey cocaine takes is traced
from beginning to end and leaves no reader untouched by the message that all our actions have
The picture-word dynamic is complex, as pictures and words show and tell different things. The illustrations
appear framed in white, which is supposed to have a psychological effect on the viewer – one of
detachment. But do we look at the illustrations with unemotional detachment? Hardly. In one illustration
the coca plant is viewed against a sunny blue sky, a pretty plant, but the verbal text reads, “These are the
plants that people can’t eat”. It feeds no one, instead it is made into cocaine and exchanged for large sums
of money in the streets of the civilised world.
Each new illustration introduces a new line of the rhyme and the illustrations get more shocking as the
rhyme gets longer. We take more time to look at the illustrations and to read the growing rhyme. We see
what it’s like in the street: a faceless woman is holding a baby; an anguished woman is banging her head on
the wall; a man is so high, his head is upside-down; the roaches – remains of a marijuana cigarette – are
scattered in the foreground. The words read: “This is the street of the town in pain … ” and it is the
illustrations that show us the pain that is felt. The final illustration, alongside the whole rhyme of 13 lines,
depicts a baby lying still, knees against its tummy, on a grassy hill, and a dark blue sky with waterdrops
falling. The rhyme tells us:
And these are the Tears we cry in our sleep
that fall for the Baby with nothing to eat,
born of the Girl who’s killing her brain,
smoking the Crack that numbs the pain,
bought from the Boy feeling the heat,
chased by the Cop working his beat,
who battles the Gang, fleet and elite,
that rules the Street of a town in pain
that cries for the Drug known as cocaine,
made from the Plants that people can’t eat,
raised by the Farmers who work in the heat
and fear the Soldiers who guard the Man
who lives in the House that crack built.
The first illustration shows a huge mansion, with a swimming pool by the sea, and the last depicts a dying
baby born of a crack-injecting mother.
This picturebook is definitely didactic in nature for it was created with the objective of getting teenage
learners talking about drugs and reminding them that the problem is out there. However, it is cleverly
written and illustrated and helps learners experience the events through both the words and the pictures.
The importance of dealing with the consequences of drugs is made every clear, which is an age-appropriate
approach to such a controversial topic (Koehnecke, 2001). In the afterword, Michael Pritchard, a stand-up
comedian and youth counsellor, writes: “This book is about choices … [the author and illustrator] have
created a tool that can be used to open up discussion and help children learn to make the right choices.
Together they have reminded us that in small and personal ways each of us has the power to change the
world” (Taylor & Thompson Dicks, 1992, p. 33).
How can we use The House that Crack Built in the classroom?
The House that Crack Built is a very small book, which means it’s not too expensive, so class sets won’t cost
too much! You need a class set, so that leaners can look closely at the illustrations and talk about them.
These are the steps I did with my students in Portugal (ideas are adapted from Hirsch & Supple, 1996):
1. Look at the original traditional rhyme: explain the concept of accumulation in the rhyme and
discuss the issue of consequence.
2. Show the title, The House that Crack Built, and ask students to think of three images and three
words that might appear in a picturebook like this. They will all think of drugs – they are teenagers,
but you can also talk about the many meanings of the word ‘crack’.
3. Share the picturebook. We first did this as a PowerPoint slide show and read out the first line of
each page, then give the students the lines to complete the accumulative text of the poem. The
students enjoyed this tremendously and it can be a very dramatic way to present the book. This can
be repeated several times. Don’t forget to ask your students if any of the images or words they
chose appeared in the story!
4. Give out the class set and ask students to think about which images were most powerful for them.
What memories or feelings did they experience as they listened to the story?
5. Discuss these ideas and thoughts in small groups then share with the class. This can be extremely
rich in discussion as the students usually select different images for different reasons.
6. Organise a debate – these are the questions that were raised:
- Is selling drugs ever justified?
- Why do poor communities have gangs?
- Can gangs have a positive influence?
- Should Portugal make cannabis legal?
- What do we actually need in order to be happy?
7. Rewrite the story-poem from the point of view of living in a place where houses were built with
love. Depict a community at peace: one that supports alternatives to drugs.
8. Illustrate the pages of the story-poem and make a book.
9. Create a rap.
10. Share book and rap with other classes, families, and the community.
Many students in Portugal have enjoyed talking about drugs through this picturebook and feedback has
been very positive. The illustrated story-poems that the students created have also been very successful,
and learners have taken pride in displaying them in the school’s entrance hall. A teacher who used this
method gave feedback and commented that she believed that all students were motivated to talk, even the
weaker ones, who usually sit quietly. She also noted that during the rewriting of the poem, students
naturally used possessive pronouns and it gave her an opportunity to reinforce this particular grammar
Why do I suggest you use such books with your students? For the learning affordances these picturebooks
provide. There is nothing fixed about this affordance. It is dependent upon the learner and their own
personal understanding of the world as they interact within a meaning making experience. Picturebooks
stimulate the imagination and make our students think. They contribute to developing positive attitudes
towards language learning, literature, and the world around us. This is the power of picturebooks: to
provide appropriate, authentic learning affordances, resulting in authentic responses and language use for
our teenage learners.
Bader, B. (1976). American picturebooks from Noah’s ark to The beast within. New York, NY: Macmillan
Ellis, G. & Brewster, J. (2014). Tell it again! The new storytelling handbook for primary teachers. Retrieved
Hirsch, C. & Supple, D.B. (1996). 61 cooperative learning activities in ESL. Portland, MA: Walch Education.
Koehnecke, D. (2001). Smokey night and crack: Controversial subjects in current children’s stories. In
Children’s Literature in Education, 32(1), 17-29.
Lewis, D. (2001). Reading contemporary picturebooks: Picturing text. Abingdon: RoutledgeFalmer.
Mourão, S. (2011, October 1). The house that crack built [Web log post]. Retrieved from
Further Reading: Picturebooks
Browne, A. (2008). Piggybook. London: Walker Books.
Cave, K. & Riddell, C. (1994). Something else. London: Puffin Books.
Cole, B. (2004). Princess smartypants. London: Puffin Books.
McGee, D. (2006). Tusk tusk. London: Andersen Press.
Tan, S. (2000). The red tree. Melbourne: Lothian Books.
Taylor, C. & Thompson Dicks, J, (1992). The house that crack built. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle Books.
Willis, J. & Ross, T. (2001). Susan laughs. London: Red Fox Picture Books.
About the Author
Sandie Mourão has a PhD in didactics and teacher education. Since 1987, she has been living and working
in Portugal as a teacher educator, author, and consultant specialising in early years’ language education.
Interested in picturebooks, Sandie writes an award-winning blog, Picturebooks in ELT
(http://picturebooksinelt.blogspot.com/), which promotes the use of picturebooks with language learners
of all age groups.